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The first element of a copyright-infringement claim is ownership of a valid copyright. A valid copyright extends only to copyrightable subject matter. The Copyright Act of 1976 defines copyrightable subject matter as original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression. 17 U.S.C.S. § 102(a). Works of authorship include pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works, 17 U.S.C.S. § 102(a)(5), which the statute defines to include two-dimensional and three-dimensional works of fine, graphic, and applied art, photographs, prints and art reproductions, maps, globes, charts, diagrams, models, and technical drawings, including architectural plans. 17 U.S.C.S. § 101. And a work of authorship is fixed in a tangible medium of expression when it is embodied in a material object from which the work can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated.
Respondent Varsity Brands, Inc. (Varsity) have more than 200 copyright registrations for two-dimensional designs—consisting of various lines, chevrons, and colorful shapes—appearing on the surface of the cheerleading uniforms that they design, make, and sell. They sued Petitioner Star Athletica, L.L.C. (Star Athletica), who also markets cheerleading uniforms, for copyright infringement. The District Court granted Star Athletica summary judgment, holding that the designs could not be conceptually or physically separated from the uniforms and were therefore ineligible for copyright protection. In reversing, the Sixth Circuit concluded that the graphics could be “identified separately” and were “capable of existing independently” of the uniforms.
Are the graphics copyrightable?
The Court held that the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit did not err when it found that graphics that were used by a company that manufactured cheerleading uniforms were copyrightable because they could be identified separately and were capable of existing independently of uniforms the company manufactured. The Court also found that the features incorporated into the design of a useful article were eligible for copyright protection if they could be perceived as two- or three-dimensional works of art separate from the useful article and qualified as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work—either on their own or fixed in some other tangible medium of expression—if they were imagined separately from the useful article into which they were incorporated.